Thank You, Bartending

There are certain things that only bartending can teach. Adam Erace offers a thank you letter to the profession for all of the late nights, $2 Miller Lites and, ultimately, his wife.

bartending essay erace

I’d just pricked my poached eggs when my iPhone 3 began to dance. It was late morning on a Friday in February—Valentine’s Day. I picked up the call, and immediately regretted it. “Hey, Adam, we were wondering… do you have plans tonight?”

It was Gena, one of the managers at Benny the Bum’s, the bar I worked at down by the stadiums in South Philly. I never worked Fridays, but they were short-staffed. A special Valentine’s Day dance party had been planned with Bob Pantano, the Steve Aoki of South Philly’s disco-era divorcées. Gena pleaded: It would be really busy. Could I please come in?

Despite the name, there was nothing bum-like about Benny’s. Shortly before I started working there, new owners had renovated the place with a massive central bar, plasmas, a lobster tank and miles of glittery glass mosaic tiles. Ironically, the swank bar lived in the ground floor of a crummy Holiday Inn frequented by airline personnel, adulterers (occasionally one and the same) and tortured visiting-team sports fans. When I was in high school, the Holiday Inn was one of the only hotels that would rent you a room with a really shitty fake ID. Before I got the job at Benny’s, the last time I’d stepped foot in the building was the night of my junior prom.

My shifts at Benny’s underwrote my early freelance writing career. I’d bank just shy of a grand in three days, cash, and have such a good time doing it that it hardly felt like work. The bar team was like family. We’d spend an eight-hour shift together and then hang out for three more hours after closing. The bar manger, Greg, and I would tap the keg of whatever new beer had come in from Dogfish Head or Tröegs. Gianna would impersonate customers. Cindy would drink dirty Martinis and drag on Carlton cigarettes like Cruella De Vil. I’d roll home at 4:30 a.m., watch an episode of the Wire with a bowl of Frosted Flakes, pass out and do it all over again.

I didn’t feel like being there on Valentine’s Day, but I was coming off a good few months and feeling charitable. The Phillies won the World Series that October. I worked all through the playoffs and the entire Series and I’d never experienced my city so insane with joy. In January I went to Thailand on assignment for my first Big Deal Magazine story. And that Friday night during a shift I wasn’t supposed to be working, a girl with a clear green eyes and a blunt black Victoria Beckham bob walked into my bar, and everything changed.

I wasn’t shy around girls, exactly. At Catholic grade school dances and basement birthday parties, I always had a partner for a Boys II Men song or PG make-out session, but a friend-zone force field repelled the girls I actually liked. It wasn’t until high school, when my social network expanded exponentially, that I realized the girls I was attracted to might also be attracted to me, too. But I was a freshman, and so was my game. 

Bartending changed that.

I was 15 when I started working at Colleen’s, a wedding venue in an apartment complex near the Philadelphia Art Museum. My whole family worked there. My dad was the maître d’. My mom was queen of the hors d’oeuvres and sweet tables, creating cream puff ziggurats and Renaissance still lifes made of pepperoni and provolone. My dad’s first cousin was the head bartender. My older cousin and best friend parked cars. My younger cousin spent 2003 to 2006 tending a menagerie of foxes and minks in the coat-check room.

I was a busboy, but I spent most of my time dreaming of becoming a bartender. My older cousin Noelle tended bar at a Friday’s in Jersey, and I spent an entire summer studying her bartender bible, reading up on Pousse-Cafés and what made a Perfect Martini perfect. I’d go buy any book at Borders related to mixing drinks. I watched Cocktail—a lot.

The following year, after I turned 16, Colleen’s started putting me on the Martini bar during cocktail hour. This was at the height of Sex and the City, and for 90 minutes each night, I’d shake chocolate Martinis, Cosmos, sour apple Martinis, French Martinis dyed purple with Chambord and classic vodka or gin Martinis, as dry or dirty as the glitzed-to-death guests of the evening’s Main Line mitzvah or South Philly Italian wedding preferred.

By 17, I’d graduated to the main bar at Colleen’s, where I’d mix drinks on weekend nights for the next five years as somebody way more social than my non-bartending self. Not that I wasn’t naturally outgoing, but bartending forces you out of your shell in a way that’s extreme even for extroverts. (Plus, alcohol.) You’re required to engage, debate, shoot the shit, flirt. People want your attention. They come to you. Nothing eased my lingering insecurities like the absolute elimination of the risk of rejection.

The problem with Colleen’s was that I was still interacting with customers who were mostly older than me, not my peers. That changed the during my late teens and early 20s, when I’d relocate to the Jersey Shore for the summers and then, eventually, to Benny’s. Down at the Shore, I’d work weeknight shifts at a shot-and-beer joint with dueling pianos, sticky floors and plenty of girls my own age. My bartending persona crystallized against backdrop of knock-off Billy Joel. I internalized this character I’d created—a guy more confident, more likeable, more flirtatious and funnier than I was—and willed his traits so hard into my DNA that eventually they stuck.

Charlotte Scornaienchi had a teaching degree but worked in marketing for Verizon. She’d be on the road for months at a time, piloting a Toyota FJ Cruiser and 12-foot trailer from Minneapolis to Baton Rouge to Dallas to Nashville to Des Moines to whatever other city had a sporting event, concert or state fair Verizon deemed worthy of an interactive retail display of wireless gadgetry. The day after Valentine’s Day, she was scheduled to leave for Chicago to begin a second ten-month tour. She was having second thoughts about going.

To get her mind off it, Charlotte’s parents convinced her to go out with them and their friends. On Valentine’s Day. To which Charlotte responded, “Why do you want me to be single for life?”

“Get over yourself and go put a pair of jeans on,” her mom said.

Ethel, one of Charlotte’s parents’ friends, forgot to make dinner reservations. It being Valentine’s Day, there wasn’t exactly a plethora of restaurants that could accommodate a nine-top at the last minute. So Charlotte, then 24, ended up at Benny the Bum’s with eight 50-somethings in the middle of the Bob Pantano Valentine’s Day dance party.

I knew Ethel from Colleen’s. The ballroom had a little adjacent sports bar, where I’d pour $2 Miller Lites on Friday nights for residents of the apartment complex and Colleen’s clients like Ethel and her family. I recognized her and her husband, Bill—and saw Charlotte—right away. She walked into the bar on long legs wrapped in dark jeans. She had a black top on. High cheekbones. Big smile. I was pouring a Yuengling at the front tap system, and we locked eyes before she disappeared into the crowd.

Bill and Ethel grabbed seats at the front right corner of the bar and ordered a round of drinks for their group. When I stopped back to check on them, Bill asked if I was single. I was, yes, and please let him be asking on behalf of that dark-haired girl. He was, and called Charlotte over to the bar.

“Come meet your future husband.”

We were engaged the following December and married on a balmy April afternoon in 2012, the day after my 28th birthday. My brother’s best man speech recounted the story of how Charlotte and I met, netting enthusiastic hoots from my former Benny the Bum’s coworkers.

At one time in the not-too-distant past, meeting one’s wife in a bar probably sounded a little sleazy, but set against today’s swipe-right dating era, it’s downright quaint. No judgment. There are plenty of committed couples whose origin stories involve the app store. But I would have been lost in the Tinder age. I needed bars—whether it was Benny’s rippling river of granite, Colleen’s fauxhogany Martini counter or the myriad other slabs of wood or stone I’ve served drinks behind. They gave me thousands of hours of practice, so that when I met someone who really mattered, I had the confidence to make a move.

Benny the Bum’s South Philly embassy closed in late 2009. The last shift I worked was during the 2009 World Series in October. The Phillies had reprised their role as National League champs and were up against the Yankees. We were all trying to recapture the magic of 2008, but it proved ephemeral. The crowds weren’t as strong; the money wasn’t as good. We’d lost some key people behind the bar, and the owners overstaffed us with strangers from their Northeast Philly location—an affront we responded to like territorial cats.

It was Game 5. I was scheduled to work Game 6 two days later. Disgusted with the Phillies loss and the toxic vibe at the bar, I gave my shift away. Later that week, I got a text from my bar manager, Greg. There was a paperwork snafu with our liquor license, an alleged oversight (more likely a power play) by the hotel’s owners, who had been on the outs with Benny’s owners for a while. The liquor control board shut the bar down. Benny’s reopened with a temporary license for exactly one day a month later, then closed for good. I haven’t tended bar since.

In Benny’s place, there’s now a nondescript hotel-run bar I’ve never been to. Whenever we drive by, I imagine us slowing down to point it out to our future kids: That’s where Mom and Dad met. For now, I pour out a figurative cherry vodka-Red Bull for Benny’s and thank the trade of bartending. For my wife. For everything.

Adam Erace is contributing editor at Men's Journal, restaurant critic at Fortune, and contributor to more than 50 international publications. His writing has been recognized with awards from the International Association of Culinary Professionals and the Association of Food Journalists and he is the co-author of Laurel: Modern American Flavors in Philadelphia and Dinner at the Club: 100 Years of Stories and Recipes from South Philly's Palizzi Social Club. He lives in South Philly with his wife, Charlotte, and two maniacal rescue dogs, Lupo and Marco.